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Pioneers recall early days of South Lake Tahoe

Jack Barnwell
jbarnwell@tahoedailytribune.com
Betty Mitchell explains a point during Wednesday's Fireside Chat, where city pioneers discussed the incorporation of South Lake Tahoe.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

History, nostalgia and a bit of good-natured humor sparked Wednesday night as three of South Lake Tahoe’s pioneers reminisced about the city’s founding and the efforts it took to incorporate it.

Laurel Ames, Betty Mitchell and John Cefalu sat before a packed audience in the city council chambers at South Lake Tahoe Airport, including a dozen who recalled the incorporation.

All three offered different perspectives and shared outlooks on the effort it took to transform the community from a revenue generator for El Dorado County to a city in 1965.

Ames and Mitchell helped drive the volunteer effort to put the city incorporation on the ballot and getting as many of the 14,000 people who lived in the South Shore community at the time. They gathered the information from the El Dorado County voter precinct, which was only a fraction.

“It was amazing how many people weren’t registered voters,” Mitchell said. “We went out knocking on doors.”

Mitchell said with a laugh, that most people didn’t register because it meant jury duty summons, which took place in Placerville.

With a lot of volunteer help, and in a time before computers and modern mailing capacity, the community networked the old-fashioned way.

“We had addressing parties,” Ames said. “If you wanted a letter to go out, you wrote the address on it.”

One of the first challenges included drafting the city boundaries. In two years and a lot of state regulations, volunteers required managed. Ames said the traditional method of establishing a boundary — a survey — was outside their budget.

They took the South Tahoe Public Utility District (STPUD) boundary to establish the initial borders. The airport was annexed later when the city took over control from the county.

Heavenly Valley had its own issues, Ames said.

“That was just pure politics,” Ames said. “(Hugh) Killebrew, (from Heavenly), came to us and said ‘If you keep me in the boundary, I’ll sue.’” Since the incorporation politics didn’t have any money, they left Heavenly off the map.

“That was a terrible thing to do because that’s where we could get a lot of revenue for the city from ski tickets, but it wasn’t worth it,” Ames said.

Ames added that Caltrans buying up large swaths of land for right-of-ways for Highway 50 prompted a lot of action. The initial proposal included the highway cutting through several meadows and had off ramps.

Cefalu recalls the meeting where Caltrans made its presentation to 400 people in a packed gym at the old South Tahoe High School.

The council, in one of its first actions, voted 4-1 to oppose the highway path.

“The very fact that the freeway was to have an off-ramp into Harrah’s parking lot naturally aggravated Harvey Gross (owner of Harveys Casino), and you can imagine there was always competition between the two,” Cefalu said.

He said that started the underground movement for incorporation. Had the off ramp gone in, Cefalu said it could have been a disaster and traffic nightmare.

Cefalu also recalled El Dorado County and Placerville not paying much attention to its South Shore community other than as a tax revenue generator.

“That set the framework for incorporation,” Cefalu said.

Other driving forces included what Cefalu referred to as the good ol’ boys club – both in Placerville and in the Basin.

The one in South Lake Tahoe, referred to as Roosters, drove decisions even before the city became incorporated. Cefalu said the first five councilmembers were Roosters.

Some of the decisions, he said, ran counter to what he thought the voters had expected, including supporting bringing the Olympics to Lake Tahoe.

Mitchell noted building permits had always been a mess in the early days. She recalled when she and her husband tried to put an addition onto their house, permits were hard to come by from Placerville.

“They said you can buy the permit, but no one is going to come look,” Mitchell said.

Ames noted that some development has come at the cost of loss of local scenery, including the trees that once lined Highway 50.

“The ones that are left are paved up to their necks,” Ames said.

Cefalu recalled Harrison Avenue’s creation following the elimination of parking along Highway 50. Harrison Avenue allowed the businesses along the road to have frontage.

All three felt there has been some progress made during the 50 years, while some things are still lacking.

“The working group of incorporation was very committed to being stewards of the Lake Tahoe Basin,” Ames said. “They were not interested in having the ugly build up we have at the South Shore we have now.”

Cefalu said there have been a lot of good things and some disappointments along the way.

“We’re all responsible in some respects to how things ended up,” Cefalu said. “We made mistakes. I just hope we learn from those mistakes and do things a little differently.”


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